UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 2003

Jun 12, 2003

Statement to the Meeting of States Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
United Nations

by Douglas B. Stevenson, Director
Center for Seafarers’ Rights
The Seamen’s Church Institute

Mr. President, I am grateful for your welcoming me to this important meeting and for your kind words about our work on behalf of the world’s seafarers.

Twenty-one years ago the community of nations concluded a remarkable achievement in adopting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  They fashioned a rule of law that created order out of the chaos of the dangerous, unruly and unpredictable environment of the seas.

This body assembled here today has been commissioned to protect and fulfill the promise of the Law of the Sea Convention.  It is a vitally important duty because our collective economies, our safety and security, and the protection of the marine environment depend upon maintaining a respect for the rule of law on the oceans of this fragile earth.

Fundamental to the Law of the Sea Convention is the premise that all of the problems of the oceans are closely related.  The drafters of the Convention recognized that preserving and protecting an orderly environment for the men and women who work on the seas was crucial to protecting all of the other interests addressed by the Convention.  On a very practical level, if we cannot attract and retain skilled and reliable people to work on the seas, our economies will suffer, the marine environment will be threatened, exploration and exploitation of the ocean resources will be hindered and our security will be jeopardized.

Mr. President, I am alarmed.  I am alarmed by the unprecedented assaults on the Law of the Sea Convention’s protections for merchant mariners that have occurred over the past year.  Never, in the twenty-one years since the adoption of the Law of the Sea Convention, have so many challenges existed to it’s the rule of law affecting merchant mariners, as have arisen since I last spoke to you.

Mr. President, if you will permit me, I will describe, from a merchant mariner’s perspective, six trends that relate to the UNCLOS rule of law that affects them – and that discourage skilled and reliable people from pursuing sea-going careers.

  1. Pirates.  Pirate attacks on merchant shipping continue to increase in their numbers and in their violence, even during the time of heightened post-9/11 security. According to statistics of piracy attacks reported to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur 171 attacks occurred during the first six months of 2002 as compared with 165 for the first six months in 2001 (the total for 2001 was 365).  From January to June 2002, 98 crewmembers were taken hostage, 21 injured, 6 killed and 23 missing from piracy attacks.
  2. Coastal states order ships to sail from safe waters to dangerous waters.  There is a trend by coastal states to defy the UNCLOS right of innocent passage by ordering vessels out of their territorial seas and prohibiting some types of vessels from transiting their territorial seas.  This increases danger to ship’s crews, and also raises the vessel operators’ operating expenses.
  3. Coastal States are creating disincentives for rescuing persons in distress at sea.  No more fundamental seagoing tradition exists than the duty of all mariners to go to the aid of persons in peril at sea.  In this ageless practice, that all mariners depend upon, neither race, color, nor religion matter; nationality and politics do not exist, and there are no strangers.  Only the simple moral obligation to help a fellow human being in distress at sea remains.  We are very concerned that coastal states are creating disincentives for vessels to respond to a distress at sea by refusing refuge to shipwreck survivors and by attempting to limit their state responsibilities to receive rescued persons.  States having search and rescue responsibility for the sector in which rescues occur should make every effort to minimize the burdens on rescuing vessels and should arrange to expeditiously disembark the rescued persons.  Some coastal States also discourage ships in distress to seek refuge by charging exorbitant anchorage fees and repair and replenishment charges, and by subjecting crews to arrest.
  4. Mariners are increasingly subjected to criminal prosecutions in pollution cases, even when there is no criminal culpability.  As coastal states look for scapegoats in pollution cases, ship’s crews serve as conveniently available victims.  Crews face risk of prosecution for strict liability crimes, irrespective of any criminal intent.  Furthermore, shipowners often leave crews accused of environmental crimes to fend for themselves after they are advised that their legal interests conflict with those of their crews.
  5. Abandoned ships remain a problem worldwide.  My office is regularly called upon to help seafarers who have been abandoned by their insolvent owners leaving their crews without pay, food, water, fuel or the means to go home - and the cases that we learn about are just the tip of the iceberg.  Although Maritime law theoretically provides remedies for seafarers caught in such circumstances, the remedies often lie beyond their reach.  In many cases, crews cannot afford to pay litigation costs, legal fees or to support themselves during protracted legal procedures required to avail themselves of the law’s protections.  No qualifications, financial or otherwise, exist for owning a ship.  When shipowners become insolvent, they can walk away from their crews with impunity.  It is a crime for a ship’s master to abandon a crewmember.  It is not a crime for an owner to abandon a crew.  Port state and flag state remedies often prove inadequate to feed, house, pay or repatriate abandoned crews.
  6. Ship’s crews face additional security responsibilities and duties as a result of post 9/11 maritime security measures.  Although crews serve as essential allies in the war against terrorism, often they are treated like potential terrorists rather than the possible victims of terrorism or allies, as evidenced by the increased shore leave restrictions imposed by coastal states.

Mr. President, all of these trends that are affecting merchant mariners have a connection to the Law of the Sea Convention, and they are interrelated to other UNCLOS concerns.  A pressing question that we must consider is: What kind of people do we want to attract to sea-going careers?  If we discourage skilled and reliable people from this work, who are going operate commercial vessels, and will they have the competence and reliability to keep the oceans safe, clean and secure?

Our economies, our marine resources, our marine environment and our security depend upon merchant mariners, and merchant mariners depend upon the rule of law created by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.  This Meeting can arise to the challenge. It can assure that the promise of the Convention, which began twenty-one years ago, is fulfilled by encouraging adherence to its rule of law.

Through you, Mr. President, I respectfully request that this Meeting of the States Parties of the Law of the Sea Convention respond to the assaults on the convention by placing on its agenda, as a priority item: The protections for persons employed in the workplace of the sea – and a review of how Member States implement the relevant provisions of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.